WellPoint's Big Surprise Isn't So Surprising

Thanks to lower health care costs and surging Medicaid enrollment, WellPoint (WLP) joined United Healthcare (UNH), and Aetna (AET) in reporting solid first-quarter results.

May 2, 2014 at 2:05PM

Qualifying for Medicaid has gotten easier, and big insurers are clapping their hands over it. That's because many of the largest state Medicaid plans aren't run by the states, but by private insurance companies like WellPoint (NYSE:ANTM), United Healthcare (NYSE:UNH), and Aetna (NYSE:AET).

Those mega insurers, along with a handful of smaller niche insurance companies, bid for the right to manage those Medicaid plans. And since those bids are based on the number of people enrolled in Medicaid, the millions of new members that have signed up for the program since Obamacare kicked in last fall have been a boon to insurers' top and bottom lines.

So, it shouldn't be too surprising to learn that WellPoint has joined United and Aetna in reporting impressive results for its Medicaid business. Yet investors appear to have been caught flat-footed given shares jumped to new highs following the earnings release. Since shares have soared, lets take a closer look at WellPoint's quarter and better understand why investors have rushed back in.

WLP Chart

WLP data by YCharts.

Understanding WellPoint's business
The company provides insurance to people in exchange for insurance premiums. Like most insurers, it uses sophisticated models to price premiums high enough to pay for its members' health care, its operating costs, and -- of course -- its profit.

If members use less health care services in any given quarter, the insurer makes more money. If they use more health care services in any given quarter, the insurer makes less money. As long as the model prices for the costs of care, each additional member's premium should boost revenue and the insurer's profit.

Of course, that makes a big assumption. It assumes the model works correctly. And that's the one risk that was keeping investors awake at night. Because if these plans weren't priced right, and the cost of providing care exceeded what was expected, profit would nosedive.

So far, that fear appears off-base.

Both United and Aetna had already reported earnings that were either at (in the case of United) or far above (as was the case for Aetna) Wall Street analyst estimates.

And now, with WellPoint having also reported earnings that were above expectations, investors have additional conviction that reform won't impale insurer profit this year.

WellPoint added 1.3 million new members during the quarter, bringing its total membership to nearly 37 million people. That gave the company enough faith to increase its full-year EPS guidance from "above $8" per share at the end of January, to "greater than $8.40" today.

Behind the numbers
The bulk of WellPoint's new members came from the national, local, and group markets. Those 1.2 million new members helped WellPoint's total operating revenue grow a bit more than 1% to $17.6 billion in the first quarter.

However, that 1% figure masks much stronger results from the company's Government business, which includes Medicaid.

The company added more than 120,000 new Medicaid members in the quarter, which boosted WellPoint's Government business revenue by nearly 5% from a year ago.

That solid showing reinforces success at WellPoint's competitors. United Healthcare's Medicaid revenue grew 17% to $5.2 billion as Medicaid enrollment grew by 255,000. And Aetna's acquisition of Coventry Health last May, and Medicaid expansion, helped its government premiums grow from $2.6 billion to $5.1 billion in the quarter.

However, membership growth is only one side of the coin. Insurers also need costs to remain in check to make money, and WellPoint looks good there, too.

The company's benefit expense ratio, which shows how much the company paid out to provide health care to its members relative to the premiums it collected from those members, fell 1% from last year to 82.7%.

The company attributes that success to better performance from the company's Medicaid business, which saw its operating margin leap from 1.4% last year to 3% in the first quarter.

A combination of solid revenue and lower health care costs fueled WellPoint's repurchase of nearly 5% of its shares outstanding, or roughly 14.3 million shares. And WellPoint was still able to bulk up its cash position, which finished the quarter at $1.97 billion, up from $1.58 billion last year, despite those buybacks.

Fool-worthy final thoughts
The biggest takeaway from WellPoint's quarter may be that the company feels confident enough to boost its guidance for its full-year results.

That gives investors confidence that it will continue its shareholder-friendly buybacks, and more importantly, maintain or grow its healthy dividend, which currently stands at $1.75 per share per year. Given that backdrop, it would seem investors' recent enthusiasm isn't misplaced.

These dividend stocks offer rock solid income
The smartest investors know that dividend stocks simply crush their non-dividend paying counterparts over the long term. That's beyond dispute. They also know that a well-constructed dividend portfolio creates wealth steadily, while still allowing you to sleep like a baby. Knowing how valuable such a portfolio might be, our top analysts put together a report on a group of high-yielding stocks that should be in any income investor's portfolio. To see our free report on these stocks, just click here now.

Todd Campbell has no position in any stocks mentioned. Todd owns E.B. Capital Markets, LLC. E.B. Capital's clients may or may not have positions in the companies mentioned. Todd owns Gundalow Advisors, LLC. Gundalow's clients do not have positions in the companies mentioned.The Motley Fool recommends UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint. The Motley Fool owns shares of WellPoint. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Money to your ears - A great FREE investing resource for you

The best way to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as “binge-worthy finance.”

Feb 1, 2016 at 5:03PM

Whether we're in the midst of earnings season or riding out the market's lulls, you want to know the best strategies for your money.

And you'll want to go beyond the hype of screaming TV personalities, fear-mongering ads, and "analysis" from people who might have your email address ... but no track record of success.

In short, you want a voice of reason you can count on.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich," rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

And one of the easiest, most enjoyable, most valuable ways to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as "binge-worthy finance."

Whether you make it part of your daily commute or you save up and listen to a handful of episodes for your 50-mile bike rides or long soaks in a bubble bath (or both!), the podcasts make sense of your money.

And unlike so many who want to make the subjects of personal finance and investing complicated and scary, our podcasts are clear, insightful, and (yes, it's true) fun.

Our free suite of podcasts

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. The show is also heard weekly on dozens of radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers are timeless, so it's worth going back to and listening from the very start; the other three are focused more on today's events, so listen to the most recent first.

All are available for free at www.fool.com/podcasts.

If you're looking for a friendly voice ... with great advice on how to make the most of your money ... from a business with a lengthy track record of success ... in clear, compelling language ... I encourage you to give a listen to our free podcasts.

Head to www.fool.com/podcasts, give them a spin, and you can subscribe there (at iTunes, Stitcher, or our other partners) if you want to receive them regularly.

It's money to your ears.


Compare Brokers